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California and the West

Union misled farmworkers, state panel says

A labor board rules that the UFW didn't fully disclose that some dues could be withheld.

February 23, 2007|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

In a rare rebuke, a state labor board ruled that the United Farm Workers of America deliberately misled workers about their rights not to join the union or fund its political activities.

The ruling comes amid a continuing national effort by anti-union activists to weaken organized labor's political clout, and as the farmworker group continues to lose membership and influence among California's immigrant farm laborers.

The California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which referees labor practices in the state's fertile fields, found that the union failed to adequately inform mushroom pickers at a Ventura farm that they could withhold the portion of their dues that fund political lobbying, as allowed by state law. The board also found that the union threatened workers who did hold back those funds, telling them that all workers had to pay or the grower would be obligated under the contract to fire them.

In its order last week, the agency directed the union to better inform workers of their rights and to refund fees that members paid under protest. Those fees are 7% to 10% of dues, said Michael Lee, general counsel for the state board.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 91 words Type of Material: Correction
United Farm Workers: An article in Business on Friday about a California Agricultural Labor Relations Board ruling said the board found that the United Farm Workers had told workers they could be fired if they did not pay union dues. The board had dismissed allegations that union agents orally threatened employees with discharge; however, it found that the union violated state law by not observing proper procedures toward employees who had not paid a portion of their dues, when it distributed written notice to them saying that they could be fired.

The ruling resulted from complaints to the agency lodged by two employees on behalf of 400 workers at California Mushroom Farm Inc., formerly Pictsweet Mushroom Farms. The two employees were represented by the Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation Inc., an anti-union activist group that has launched similar challenges elsewhere in the country.

Union dues are about 2% of the mushroom workers' pay rate of $8.40 to $12 an hour, UFW spokeswoman Alisha Rosas said.

The order by the five-member board is unusual, Lee said, because most disputes are resolved at the regional level or by mediation.

The union downplayed the decision's significance.

"We make every effort to let workers know of their rights and we've learned from this how to do that better," Rosas said.

She called the Right to Work foundation's complaint part of a national anti-union strategy.

But Stefan Gleason, the foundation's vice president, labeled the union's actions "standard operating procedures" and said he hoped that the group "will start respecting the legal rights of workers, especially those who don't want much to do with them."

The United Farm Workers' clout has dwindled significantly from the 1970s, when Cesar Chavez called for a grape boycott that produced national headlines and landmark protections for migrant laborers.

Inroads from other labor groups, as well as the transitory nature of migrant workers, have caused the UFW's membership rolls to shrink.

Efforts to undermine union political clout by focusing on dues collection have multiplied in recent years, buttressed by state and federal court rulings.

Although California voters defeated a 2005 measure backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would have required public employee unions to obtain annual written permission from members to spend their dues on politics, the Right to Work foundation and other groups have mounted legal challenges, often successfully, to the activities of individual unions.

molly.selvin@latimes.com

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